What About Church?
We are finishing a series today called What About…? As God’s allies we often have questions about our faith. And we get asked questions by other people that we struggle to answer. Today we’ll finish this series by talking about the question, “What About Church?” What is the church, why did Jesus begin the church and what did he have in mind? And I especially want to talk about how we respond to problems in the church when we come across them.
Last week we talked about the question, “What About Gender Roles?” How God sees men and women as equal in value and status, that there is no hierarchy of gender in God’s church and in his Kingdom. There were a handful of questions that I responded to in the midweek podcast.
If you have questions about church that you’d like to ask, text away to the number on the screen while I’m speaking. If we have time towards the end I’ll have a go at responding to a couple of them. And I’ll record a midweek podcast responding to the questions. That podcast will go online on our website and through iTunes and whatever podcast app you use.
What’s wrong with church?
Rather than starting with what’s right with the church, we more quickly and naturally gravitate to what’s wrong with the church. In our own conversations, and when other people ask us about the church. It’s often quicker and easier to start with the question, ‘What’s wrong with church?’ The church is tainted.
- I mean the historical church. The crusades. The inquisitions. Violence, murder and persecution by the church.
- I mean the global church. There are thousands of denominations and splinter groups and fringe churches who claim to believe in the same Jesus we do, but tack on all sorts of strange behaviour and beliefs.
- I mean the recent church. The news and Royal Commission and stories coming out about child abuse in churches and church run programs around Australia has been horrifying. That people who take the name of Jesus could allow children into a situation where they are abused is horrific.
- I mean the church in Cairns. There are lots of people all over Cairns who have moved from church to to church after being hurt or offended or bored, some of them are in church communities now and others of them have completely withdrawn from church community.
- I mean our church. I’m not sure if you’ve got your own list of problems about our church. People get hurt by each other in our church. We miss the mark in following Jesus or fulfilling what he has for us. We could do so much more, and at the same time maybe we’re busy doing things that God hasn’t even led us to do
The church is tainted. The church has problems. And more often in a conversation with someone who isn’t a Christian the talk will turn to what’s wrong with the church. The same thing can influence our own conversations: I really didn’t like this… I disagree with that… I can’t believe I was treated like this… I don’t get along with them… It was better when… It’ll be better when… Have you heard about….
All of these problems, issues and conflicts taint the church globally, locally and each church gathering. Is this what Jesus had in mind when he started the church?
Seeds of the Church
There was no church in the Old Testament. It didn’t even exist. God chose the Israelites as his people, and they gathered together to worship him, they lived their lives for him, and they were a light and example to all the nations around them. But the church didn’t exist.
The church is a new thing, only spoken about specifically by Jesus twice. Both of those times are in Matthew.
In Matthew 16:15-18 we read this:
Then he asked them, “But who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being. Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.
Building the church is not my job. It’s not your job. It’s Jesus’ job. He said he would do it, and incredibly, he has! Throughout the past two thousand years Jesus has consistently built his church through every era, in every culture, in the face of every opposition, and against every temptation and force of evil. And he’s used us, his people, as his building partners.
The rock of Peter’s belief and confession, revealed to him by God, is what Jesus builds his church on. Jesus doesn’t build his church on willing volunteers or government grants, he builds his church on people who accept and believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
Then two chapters later in Matthew 18:15-20 we read this:
“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offence. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.
“I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.
“I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
There in the middle of the passage is the word church, which is only the second time Jesus uses the word that we know about. Let’s look at the whole passage for a minute though. It’s interesting that Jesus uses the word church, for only the second time, and in the context of conflict.
This is a great passage giving us the example and model for working out conflict. Go first privately to the person who has offended you or sinned against you. If you can reconcile in that conversation, awesome. If not, go back again with one or two other people you trust and have another conversation. Not to gang up on them, but to help the conversation and to be witnesses to the conflict between you. This is the model we encourage and practice as much as possible ourselves. Don’t go around people. Don’t go behind their backs. Go to them.
Then, finally, if you can’t reconcile in that first or second conversation, take the case to the church. If even that doesn’t work, then Jesus said to treat the offending person like a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. That sounds harsh, but what does that mean? How did Jesus treat those kinds of people? He loved them. He ate with them. He invited them into the Kingdom of Heaven and to accept him. But he didn’t presume that they already lived in that way. So when he says about someone who won’t reconcile, who won’t confess their mistakes, who won’t listen when godly people around them are humbly pointing something out – Jesus says to change the way we treat them. Love, accept, eat with, have dinner parties and birthday parties with (which he did with those kind of people), but he did that knowing that they weren’t committed to him. He continued to love them, without expectation, while giving them time to repent and change. That’s what it means to treat someone like a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.
Then there are some interesting words that we won’t focus on today about what we forbid or allow on earth equalling what is forbidden or allowed in heaven. And then that quite well known passage: If we agree together on something, God will do it. And if we gather together in Jesus’ name, as his followers, there he will be among us.
There were other things Jesus said about relationship with him, and there were many, many other things that apply to the church, but this is what he said specifically about the church. The word church when Jesus says it, and throughout the New Testament later, is the Greek word ‘ekklesia’ which means assembly, gathering, congregation. It means whenever a group of Christians gathered together in Jesus’ name, and it means all Christians everywhere.
Whenever Christians get together in Jesus’ name, there Jesus is with them. And that gathering, by definition, is church. That doesn’t mean that when I go for a ride with some Christian friends that that is church. But if we went for a ride with our focus on Jesus, our conversation about him, worshipping him with our words or our actions or our singing, and we shared and encouraged each other in our faith in Jesus as we rode, well, you could probably extend that definition that we are the church as we ride together.
- So a huge church that hires a football stadium for Easter and has 40,000 people gathered to celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection…that is church.
- And when we come together on a Sunday, or during the week in a Life Group, or meet with a couple of other people to pray…that is church.
- And when Soma, the group that we have connect with as a church, when they meet together on a Sunday afternoon in someone’s home and they sing, share, pray, talk, eat…that is church.
We read later in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 12 about how we are all part of the body of Christ, we are all different parts of the same body. We each play a different role in the body of Christ, but we have unity because we are all connected to him. This is true for The Lakes Church and everyone who is part of it – we are all equal parts of the body. We all need each other. And it’s true for all the churches in Cairns, Australia and the world. We all play a different part in the body of Christ. We are not identical, we are different, but we are united because of Jesus. Not because we understand every verse of the Bible in the same way, or we like to sing the same songs, or we all do outreach and mission in the same way. But because of Jesus.
We also read later in the New Testament in Ephesians 4 about how God gave some specific gifts to equip the whole church so that we could all minister together. Gifts and roles like Apostles, Prophets, Pastors, Teachers, Evangelists do some of the work of those gifts, but more importantly they help all of us do that work of serving God and each other. Our church leadership tries to model that principle, that we exist in our roles to help us as a whole church work together and do the work of the ministry God has for us. It’s not a show or a performance, we are all involved.
The church, by definition, is whenever people gather in Jesus’ name. We are free to figure out with him how we best worship, grow and connect with each other. But it’s interesting that even from Jesus’ early mention of the church he does it in the context of conflict.
The church really kicked off in Acts chapter 2 when Jesus sent the Holy Spirit. After that initial experience and the three thousand who believed and were baptised that day, in the coming days the believers formed themselves into a community, into a church.
All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper, and to prayer.
A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity— all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.
Things progressed pretty well even as more and more people joined the church.
All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need.
For instance, there was Joseph, the one the apostles nicknamed Barnabas (which means “Son of Encouragement”). He was from the tribe of Levi and came from the island of Cyprus. He sold a field he owned and brought the money to the apostles.
This is the church that Jesus started. These were the early beginnings of what we see through the rest of the New Testament. And it’s easy to compare ourselves to them and find differences and problems. But differences and problems is actually what we find in the church through the rest of the New Testament. From Acts 5 onwards it’s a mixed bag. We find the church with conflict, people hurting each other, people getting offended, the church struggling to deal with sin, the church struggling to get out and share the good news of Jesus.
The church started explosively in numbers, with intimacy together, but it wasn’t long before they had struggles and tensions too.
- 1 Corinthians 1:11, I’ve heard that you are quarrelling
- Philippians 4:2, I plead with Euodia and Syntyche to settle their disagreement, to agree in the Lord.
- James 2:1-4, stop playing favouritism in the church. Stop treating rich people better than poor people.
The early church wasn’t perfect. Sometimes we look back on the two passages in Acts 2 & 4 and compare it to our experience today. But to compare so simply across time and culture is an inaccurate comparison and it’s not always helpful. The church has struggled from Acts 5 right throughout history.
I’ve heard of churches that are quarrelling, just like in 1 Corinthians. I’ve pleaded with two people to get along and agree in the Lord, just like in Philippians 4. I’ve experienced favouritism in the church, and unfortunately I’ve probably perpetuated it sometimes, just like in James 2.
Being hurt in the church
With Jesus as the head of the church and leading every Christian, over time it is right to expect that each of us will grow in maturity, forgiveness and grace. But that doesn’t exclude the problems and struggles that we experience. It just means we will grow to handle them better.
You may have experienced being hurt by someone in a church, or hurt because of a church culture or systems that are in place. And if you haven’t yet, you will. The temptation when that happens is to think that something strange and unnatural is happening, and to leave to find a new church, where the people are more Christian, the culture is more holy and the systems are more godly.
They say that if you ever find a perfect church you shouldn’t join it, because then you’ll be there and you’ll wreck it! We joke about it, and we know that people aren’t perfect, but we still tend to get extra offended at hurts within the church community.
If you have been hurt by another Christian or by “the church”, that is not what God intended his church to be like.
On behalf of Christians and churches, I’m sorry that you’ve been hurt before.
It may have been in our church community, by Christians here, I’m sorry that is what’s happened to you. I’m sorry that you’re hurting because of being in our church. I’m sorry for the insensitive comments. For the thoughtless actions. For the way you’ve been talked about. For the conflict that you’ve been caught up in.
Our church leadership may have been the ones that you have been hurt by. On behalf of our Ministry Team Leaders, Pastoral Leaders, Pastors, I’m sorry that you’ve been hurt or offended as part of our church.
And it’s also quite possible that I’ve done something to offend or hurt you. And I’m sorry for that.
There are times when God will lead you to leave one church community of his people, to join another church community of his people. I’ve done it, you may have too, and if you haven’ yet you probably will. It happens naturally when we move cities or across cities, it can happen naturally for other reasons. But it’s not the answer to problems in the church. Jesus gives us many more tools to work things out together before we move on.
We read earlier from Matthew about what to do when you’ve been hurt by another Christian or by the church. To go to them directly and try and work it out together as the Holy Spirit leads you. If that doesn’t work, to ask someone else to go with you to help and pray. If that doesn’t work to take it to the church. I don’t know what that meant exactly in the early church, it probably depended on which city and gathering you were part of. For us, it would mean going to the Pastoral Leaders for help in resolving it. Or if it involved me or the other Pastoral Leaders to go to Churches of Christ in QLD, the movement we are associated with, for them to help in resolving it.
Jesus knew there would be problems and struggles with his church. He knew that at times each of his kids would hurt each other. So he provided forgiveness, grace and a process to help work through it together. The funny thing is, God uses those hurts to help us grow and honour him. Jesus never leaves a hurt unused.
If we lived as Christians on our own, without each other, there’s a whole realm of discipleship, growth, serving and maturity that we would miss out on. It’s almost as if God knew what would happen with the church, that he knew we would struggle to get along together, but that it’s these problems and struggles that are part of our growth and discipleship. We are better together. A perfect Christian community doesn’t provide for a lot of growth and dependence on God. A struggling Christian community has to depend on God and has to grow to get along. We are better together. God has given us the tools and his enduring Holy Spirit to make it work.
Christ and the Church
Despite the struggles we also find the church enduring throughout history. We find the church building and thriving throughout history. With new people meeting and accepting Jesus regularly, with the Holy Spirit working with power among them, with the people learning about God, and getting to know God and walk with him, with incredible times of prayer and worship, of ministry and mission, of being a great blessing to the community around them. And we find those things today too!
Jesus said he would build his church, and he has! It exists today! Despite the many mistakes, offences, hurts, and burn outs. Despite the horrible sins of violence, persecution and abuse. Despite persecution against the church, others trying to kill Christians over and over throughout history. Jesus has built his church and it thrives today two thousand years later!
The startling statistics and trends about declining churches or declining numbers of Christians don’t really worry me. They make me pray more and seek God for how he wants us to live in these changing times, but they don’t make me freak out. Jesus will build his church. He’s managed so far, he’ll manage tomorrow and the next day too.
In an extended passage in Ephesians, Paul is writing about how to get along together and submit to one another. We read Ephesians 5:21 last week when we talked about gender roles. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Then he goes on and explains what that can look like for husbands and for wives, before going on and explaining what it looks like for other relationships too. But right near the end of chapter 3 we find this interesting comment.
Ephesians 5:31-33 NLT
As the Scriptures say, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one. So again I say, each man must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Paul quotes from Genesis 2, ‘A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ And he calls this leaving and cleaving a great mystery. He doesn’t mean mystery as something that we can never understand, but mystery in that it’s an incredible beautiful thing that God has created. Something that many of his creation will discover and experience. But then Paul says he isn’t quoting that to talk just about marriage. He’s quoting it as an illustration of Christ and the church. I don’t want to force the illustration too much but we could say, ‘For this reason, Christ Jesus leaves his father and is joined to the church, and the two are united into one.’
Jesus is united to his church. Like in covenant marriage, an eternal promise, a lifetime commitment to seeking the best for each other. And no matter how unfaithful we are, no matter how often we leave the milk out, no matter how often we prune the hedges wrong or ruin an outfit in the wash, Jesus is committed to his church. He’s committed to his global church and he’s committed to The Lakes Church. And he’s committed to any time his people gather together in his name.
Christ the groom, and the church the bride, were married in a powerful ceremony on the day of Pentecost 2000 years ago and they are still married today. For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, from this day forward, til death unites us forever in eternal life.
What About Church for you?
What about Church for you? If we are Jesus’ beautiful bride, promised to him for life, what should we do about the problems we find in church?
We should follow Jesus’ model of resolving problems, allowing his grace and forgiveness to flow through us.
We should jump into the relationships of church life. In a church of our size you can’t really get to know people on a Sunday. You don’t have time to enter into the joys of growing together, and time to grow together through the pains of it as well. Life Groups and ministry teams are the two organised ways we connect together. And you can find information about both of those ways at the Connect Corner. You may find other ways of connecting in smaller ways than Sunday, but Life Groups and serving teams are two possible ways. As our church gets smaller in relationships, as we get to know each other better and grow in faith together, differences, problems and conflict will arise. But it’s not surprise to Jesus, and he’s already given us grace, forgiveness and some steps to take when it happens.
So jump in together with us! Get to know each other better. Serve together and let’s all be ministers, doing the work of the ministry together.
What About…? series
To listen in or read along with the rest of the series follow the links below: